Kotzebue declares disaster after back-to-back blizzards, power outages and boil water notice

Kotzebue snowstorm
A Kotzebue home’s front is covered in snow on Tuesday, March 7, 2023. (Desiree Hagen/KOTZ)

Kotzebue and the Northwest Arctic Borough have declared a disaster after a series of massive snowstorms battered western Alaska. Kotzebue City Manager Tessa Baldwin said the city has a three-person crew working “around the clock,” but snow and high winds are disrupting some of the city’s key infrastructure, causing power outages and a city-wide boil water notice.

“We had a power outage which has caused a boil water notice and an extreme amount of snow,” Baldwin said. “It’s been extremely hard for our emergency responders to get to all places in the city.”

The first storm hit the region in late February followed by a second storm over the weekend, with gusts as high as 55 miles per hour and snow piled more than 20 feet high in some areas.

Baldwin, a lifelong resident of Kotzebue, said these storms have been a “unique situation” and doesn’t believe the city has experienced this much snow in decades. 

“We had five or six-foot drifts on our main streets and then on the back streets,” she said. “We were looking at anywhere between 15 and 20 foot snow drifts. My house personally was just completely covered in snow. You can’t even tell that there was a house under the snow.”

In a letter to Borough Mayor Dickie Moto, Baldwin said 76 of the city’s fire hydrants were completely buried under snow. On Tuesday, Moto allocated $50,000 in disaster relief funding to hire local contractors to help with snow removal.

Kotzebue snowstorm
Heavy snow piles in Kotzebue on Tuesday, March 7, 2023. (Desiree Hagen/KOTZ)

As of Wednesday morning, the city warned residents to continue to boil drinking water. It was the second boil water notice issued within the last two weeks.  

Baldwin said the city’s new water system, which began operation in November, was waiting for a part for its backup generator before the storm hit. According to Baldwin, Kotzebue’s intermittent power outages mean that the city’s water supply is losing pressure, which could cause sediments and other drainage to enter the city’s drinking water.

The city’s water reserves are currently below what Baldwin calls “a comfortable level.” The city is urging residents to conserve water and reduce their consumption.

The heavy snow build-up is also a concern for the city, and Baldwin said flooding when the snow melts could also pose a public health crisis. Kotzebue does not have a drainage system, and she said the spring runoff could overwhelm the city’s sewage system.

The snow has not stopped falling. Baldwin says the Northwest Arctic is preparing for another storm to hit the region Thursday.

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